A couple of years ago the recent popularity in Brisbane of two of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous operettas, The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance, sent us looking for another G&S treat for our audiences. Of course we considered all options, and in fact for this season we had initially scheduled The Gondoliers, one of the other “popular” G&S shows, with a topical Republican theme. Directing comedy with great music is one of the pleasures of my life. In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to direct Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and several Rossini comedies, so I was really looking forward to preparing a new production of The Gondoliers for Brisbane audiences. But when I got down to it, although its tunes are lovely, I found it just wasn’t all that funny. It didn’t make me laugh out loud in the way those other works do, and worse, I found myself cringing at the script’s twee-ness, its fluffy take on politics (republicans V the monarchy), not to mention its ditzy portrayal of all the women, I couldn’t see how this was going to fly with contemporary audiences. In short, it had simply dated badly, so it was back to the drawing board.
To my relief, when I revisited what has probably always been my favourite G&S: the rarely-performed Ruddigore, I laughed out loud again and again. The comedy was still fresh on the page, brought to life by many bizarre characters and situations, and with a dark quirkiness that extends to the female characters. My favourite, Mad Margaret, takes quirkiness to the extreme of course but even the ingenue, Rose Maybud, is not the perfect cardboard cut-out of the classic G&S heroine. Off-kilter from the start, Rose is obsessed and ruled by etiquette, carries strange gifts in her basket, speaks with a strange biblical twist and has an irritating tendency to correct grammar. Like everyone else, she has a secret, but not as racy a backstory as her aunt Hannah’s, or Margaret’s. It’s been a delight to subvert Gilbert’s ageist misogyny by celebrating the deliciousness, fabulousness and sexual adventurousness of these “poor” older female characters (Katisha, Ruth et al) the G&S genre created simply to mock. Similarly, a flock of flighty, empty-headed, husband-hungry bridesmaids, none over the age of 17, all destined to be defined by marriage, is another staple feature of the G&S view of women, but in a world where Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Bridget Jones and AbFab’s Patsy and Edina are among our modern day comic heroines, and the word “bridesmaids” now evokes a very different kind of experience, these young women can simply no longer be conventionally viewed as mere decoration. All the women in our cast, every chorister and each amazing principal artist, will bring a vivid contemporary sensibility to these roles.
While the male characters are more completely drawn, here too we must be vigilant about refreshing the more arcane elements of the work to speak to contemporary audiences who expect more from comedy than the schtick, hyper-crisp elocution and naff museum-piece gags I associate with traditional Gilbert and Sullivan. Once again, our cast – a mix of opera singers and actors – has been selected precisely to subvert these traditions while delivering magnificently on Gilbert’s brilliant script and Sullivan’s wonderful music.
We have not created this production to appeal to G&S aficionados but rather to new audiences who may not know about Gilbert and Sullivan’s great fame in the Victorian era, nor about the D’Oyley Carte Opera Company that kept the pair’s “Savoy Operas” alive with performance traditions lasting – some may say ossifying – for over a century. The fact that it is not one of the staples of the genre (its last professional performance in Australia was over 20 years ago) is somewhat bewildering given the quality of the music and script, so I can only put it down to its unconventionally dark humour, which makes Ruddigore perfect for 2017!
I take the view that Gilbert and Sullivan’s particularly British comedy DNA, surreality and audience connection has travelled down the decades to 20th and 21st century interpreters, most obviously to the Monty Python team, and via the Goons and Benny Hill generation to Little Britain, Absolutely Fabulous, Blackadder and others now brilliantly skewering the class system, the Royals, fashion snobbery, social trends and all things ridiculously British. (Disclaimer: I’m not the first person to connect Pythonesque humour with Gilbert and Sullivan – in 1987 Jonathon Miller’s famous Mikado for English National Opera featured Eric Idle) Working off this theory is how designer Richard Roberts and I have arrived at the production aesthetic you see before you. We sought “Pythonesque surreal” combined with the eccentric Victorian weirdness that abounds throughout Ruddigore, we were visually excited by the possibilities of Terry Gilliam’s wonderful collage art for Monty Python’s Flying Circus with the very particular aesthetic of Victorian postcards, broadsheet advertising and illustrations. Add to this combination some cheap gothic special effects of 1930s schlock horror films (think Bela Lugosi, lightning, bats, wolves baying), a bit of Victorian tattoo art, unhinged “ransom note” lettering and the contemporary appetite for all things Victorian-inspired: dandies and hipster beards, and Ruddigore’s “look and feel” is suddenly quite post-modern. Cool, even.
Artistic Director – OperaQ
Director – Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse!